Eugene Dubnov








To the memory of Osip Mandelstam
With a tense swift flight,
Where the blue is clear and luminous,
Under the sky, high to the point of tears,
Words are chasing after one another.

In them is the song of Hellenic elision
And the hail of Latin pyrrhic feet,
The torment of Italian dipthongs
And the play of French sonorants.

It delights me to watch the omnipotence
Of their flight and compare the sounds
Of the taut springtide wings
As they beat in the stiff dazzling breeze.



They glare at you out of the night,
Points of departure and of flight;

And anguished, naked, to your eyes
In empty space the walls arise,

When once again the time is here
To pass the threshold of the door.



And let me tell you more: the earth
in the painful beauty of falling leaves,
just as it is, I accept, with you,
and without you, need no other.

The sky deploys the clouds,
far away from us, over the horizon,
as though with a rheostat, dimming
the sunset across the zones of longitude.

So it must be: the shiver of foliage, wind,
the heart's disturbance and the spirit's,
the play of shadows in the light,
quickening sight and inward hearing —

autumn has spread out before us
all its painted merchandise
and in the sunset hour has agitated
the music of earth's favourite story.




What is the structure of lips
That take care of sounds,
That can scream loud and long,
That can wait and be silent?
Yesterday I was mastering words
And kissing lips lightly – 
Their loving weakness
Now remains on my own
Hard working lips,
Exacting, as if forever,
My terrible punishment.
Translated from the Russian by Anne Stevenson with the author
(Poetry, March 2012)


Mr Cash - Anthony,
A lover of the symphony,
Saxophone and tympany,
On the phone, for the nonce:
I did not all at once
Recognise who he was -
But when he said that phrase
About "Moscow midnight"
And how, with all his might,
He'd endeavour to give delight,
Within me my heart
Gave a sudden start
And all of my blood
Then understood
How life's road,
Continuing, keeps things a-stretch
And the heart's door on the latch.

12 June 1985



DECEMBER, 31, 1978

For Natalia Rozmakhova

The unquiet wind,

with its points of ice,
Beats on my cheek,
and once more the foot sinks in.
On New Year's night,
the path concealed by snow,
The storms of my youth
suddenly come back.

By sleepless doorways,
at awkward farewells,
In snow-covered parks,
over pain of giant squares;
All my forgivings,
my anapaests and promises:
Not a soul, only midnight,
the wind striking my face...

Walking far from houses
and the barking of dogs,
Across the white field,
in an alien tongue and land,
Regretting nothing
and wishing nothing back,
I imagine again
Russia's blizzards that swirled in my youth.


In the film I was watching there were flying cranes;
Men for the front were leaving their girls grief-numbed
In that part of earth – most memorable – that remains
The motherland where I was born and named.
My eyes kept shifting from the TV screen
To the photo-portraits hanging over it,
That row of leaders’ faces with obscene
Scowling jowls, all seeming to connect
In one clenched tragedy of terror and misery,
Cynicism and submission. And suddenly
It became for the first time clear to me:
This picture was all my Russia, locked in me. 
Translated from the Russian by Anne Stevenson with the author
This poem was written when the author worked for the BBC Monitoring Service and watched Soviet Television.
(Author’s Note)
(Poetry Review 101-3)


What if you know you're right? The leaves
Tumble in water, and the notebook's
Torn, the spacious heaped-up clouds
Plaited about by branches... Shades
Crowded the raft, and like a cerecloth
The river has unwound its bed... You have
No rights, and once upon your knees —
There is no getting up. Euphrates
And Kerulen have both passed by,
And Acheront was gulping down
The dew, while all the time the trial
Went on, conducted in the depth
Of the voracious gloom by huge
Density of boulders. And the foot
Suited the frame, and then he went
Down into the falling of the leaves
Coincident with fallen springtime,
And terror tried to pass for dream,
And in that dream I could make out
Cast-iron hooks upon the wall...
But through the rift between the timbers
The spaciousness above the brows
Was mirrored when the verdict rose
And tore the shame from off the clouds.
And I saw: from a leaf the rightness
Was being still born, and discovered
That terror's sleepy thickets fall
Apart together with the poem,
And knew the last captivity
To be the bowing of the knees
From their own weight, and now already
They are light for the loosening hand.


Life, with what names you confuse
and embarrass us,
speak to us across the dreams
of a fragile hour;

you bring back to life the lost
faces, resurrect
voices, you disturb with trembling
lashes, pain the eyes.

Reading through your lines, I fell
alive into sleep;
by the road a willow-tree
was bent by the wind.


Upon their rocking sleigh, over the snow,
The deep and powdery snow, two cronies skim —
The vole and the bear — across the wide Onega
To where the Pine-Tree Princes wait for them

In high bows, holding council to discuss
How poetry in the days to come might rate,
Days of stark lies and mental durance —
And shortly now all in the copse shall meet.


Wring your hands, twist your arms like the river.
The laughing willow calls me
To where the cranes are flying over the Lama,
Epithalamial, in love, flooding its banks.

Their clear path is Alhambra, halberds,
Calabria, crafted, with its
Huge clouds of alabaster,
Back – into the deluge, the laughter, the oblivion.



For Joseph Bein

Keep quiet, grassblades, do not bait me
upon the troubled waking
in the spring:
the cigarette, the pill, the breathless running
on morning dew
and in the anxious emptiness a search for thoughts;
and on a summer noon
when walking round
the water where there was
a willow by the wall
while struggling to feel
the foliage
and late at night, within
the shadow of the trees,
throughout the rising
of an enormous moon,
before the house
where all were sleeping -
do not hound
with over-rigorous justice,
leave me,
release, I paid my debt in full, and now
when I am waiting in the sun,
and bees are humming, and a ball
is lying in the bushes, and my fingers
smell of mint, do not
address me, nor besiege,
nor threaten disintegration.


A swift, familiar river
just outside my window,
as if a dream is being dreamt
by both of us together.

The evenings draw in and grow cooler.
In the deep blue distance
stormclouds sail over,
showing, in a dream, dark ships.

There, by the free-flowing water
your doppelganger rises
eager to watch the white steamer
looming beyond the foliage;

by the berry-rife bushes, a shed,
a bridge, a gate, flitting birds —
and, as if in an unclear dream,
the faces returning.

He alone who changes
one waking moment to another
knows the meaning of the figurative
graphic countenances: praise then,

my brother, my other-world friend,
by the voice of our school bell
these tall-topped trees by the water,
this house beneath the sky.


Never — I presume —
will you read these lines.
Our time to love has run its course,
all terms between us have expired,
And where there were triple dots for the pauses
is now a full-stop at every terminal station;
Last year's autumn days are this year's anniversary season...

...Travelling at seventy miles an hour
(on our continent
That's more than a hundred kilometres),
I was saved from death by an accident...

...The luminous, radiant wind is ascending its circuits,
uncurling and turning
In widening spirals,
unbound, undetained by any earthly burden.
As I came, so will I leave in his wake,
over the pre-dawn sickly naked,
Owing nothing, no one in my debt but myself,
bearing a past heavy-weighted...

...How many sleepers have calendared memories between us —
You cannot imagine;
the circuits alone have remained, as
The sky above different lands, still the same;
only last year's autumn leaves laying out my road
Swept by the wind through graveyards of years and centuries,
as if by the breathing of God...

...Uncertain of tread,
I have entered this stark new November;
Returning, the wind of eternity climbs through his coils,
is fermenting
As alcohol —
there the wind, like a prodigal, is reclaiming the peaks
and is crying
Over what he has seen:
it is me come from life to myself, I am hiding
My guilt, and the wind sits in judgement,
pronouncing the sentence, calling me to witness;
It is time for the stones to be cast away,
to wait and to gather forgiveness.


It is all — a Fantasy-Impromptu.
From the mazurka, letters and love
There's only one step, in the major key like a station,
To Majorca, coughing blood.

Only one moment, natural as taking flight:
A belfry, icarian wings, rocking asleep...
All through the night, someone again
Composes himself a requiem.


At a run, at a run, taking it so, a wisp of
Hair is whipped over the lips, and at once there is no
Question of taking back or of forgetting.
Only the fingers, assured and relentless, hover,
Ready their grip, then stoop to the cadence — they
Press home on, and relish. The term fulfilled, the flow
Of the rising tide makes brief, while spume escorts it,
The passage from Ortygia to Delos.


The light green waves of the grasses begin.
On the left,
above the shoulder of the field,
under a weighted sky
parallel to me
moving and not moving
to my rhythm —
black and sharp,
feet cut off by the horizon,
like an amateur snapshot
printed on hard paper.
And then the forest begins.

My life,
the red life,
wells to my lips.


A great wind drives them from both shores, out
crosswise through marches of trans-frontier air;
earth's entire emptiness flies headlong there,
where terrors of a lull hold breath and wait.

The earth's entire wretched vacuousness
and triviality are hurled mile after mile
among the stars, miles beyond million miles
glutted with the universal emptiness.

Scattered abroad like castaways they race
along the paths of far and unmapped feet;
dispersed in death, they run only to meet
the totally inhuman cold of space.


The green leaf attached to the stem
The rain in dusty cities
The thunder of the sea against the reefs
The richly flowered fields
The broken path of branches
The smell of dust in cities
The quiet land and the loud sea
The thin silt of the lake
The rain over the city
The itching skin of the seed
The freshening waves
The bitterness of herbs
The sap of birches
Rushing into rhythm
Of swift-flowing blood

The smell of wetted dust, the sudden fear of death


"Nicht einen Band, mein Kind, ein Kapitel."
And I, coming out of the room with the notice "Herren",
ascending to the bow of the steamer,
watching the sparse gulls
in the cold wind
(for'ard — the sails of triangulated bridges,
our steamer is heading for the Loreley),
I examine the snapshots — the two of them look so alike,
cabinet-maker, professor,
my grandfather and
my grandfather's cousin. "Professor Dubnov,"
that's how the girl would address him,
his neighbour's little sister,
in the year thirty three,
in Berlin, that fair city,
on a promenading Sunday morning.
I who have walked in the forests near Riga
where he was shot by his pupil
look through German windows at German children
who play with a German shepherd-dog in a German yard.
It was there in Berlin in some strasse,
Ruhlaerstrasse, in fact, was its name,
only a hundred yards from the Grunewald,
and Dubnov and his wife had come back from their walk.
And I think,
listening to the peals from Berlin belfries,
how could he have been so wrong, a distinguished historian,
he who had brought back the ages in all their particulars.
Thus she asked him, that girl (what happened to her?),
when, coming back from their walk,
one summer morning in Berlin
they greeted their neighbours in front of the house:
"Professor Dubnov, you will probably add,
because of what's happening to us in Germany,
a new volume, einen neuen Band, to your many-volumed work."
And he answered, with a wave of his hand:
"No, child, not a volume, only a chapter."
And I like to think
he answered that way because
he saw how the pillar of fire
veered towards a sea-coast.
But seeking for refuge, he fled to Riga,
that was a mistake.
And what History teaches us —
I find it hard to perceive.
In Germany I am confused; close by,
in an elegant cafe which doubtless
was then just the same
white-haired Germans are sitting — returning,
I lift the receiver
(and his Heidelberg student who shot him
for teaching them humanism),
I dial a Heidelberg number,
and I talk to a beautiful young German girl,
to a fraulein Christiane —
dein goldenes Haar Margarete —
there's the tremor of love in her voice —
in this age of the ending of humanism,
and will it be only a chapter,
or a whole volume and was
the old Jewish historian right,
shot not for his race in the forests near Riga.




While leaving the cabin marked "Herren,"

going up to the prow of the steamer,

watching the few seagulls

in the cold wind

(before us the triangular sails of bridges,

our steamer approaching the Lorelei),

I'm looking at the photos, where they're so alike,

the professor and the carpenter,

my aunt's grandfather and my own grandfather.

"Professor Dubnov!" that girl addressed him,

the sister of the man next door,

in '33,

in the capital city of Berlin,

one Sunday strolling morning.

I, who have walked in the woods near Riga,

where his student shot him,

through German windows am watching German children,

playing with a German shepherd in a German yard.

It was in Berlin, on a street called a strasse,

Ruhlaerstrasse was the street's name,

some hundred metres from the Grunewald,

and Mr and Mrs Dubnov were returning from their stroll.

And I think,

as I listen to the pealing of German belltowers,

how could he make a mistake, the great historian,

who had recreated whole ages in detail.

So that girl asked him (what's become of her?)

when, coming back from their stroll,

one summer morning in Berlin,

the neighbours met by the entrance:

"Professor Dubnov, you'll probably write

because of what's happening to us in Germany now

a new volume, neuen Band, of your history in many volumes."

And he answered, raising his hand:

"No, my child, it won't be a volume, no more than one chapter,"

and I would like to think

he said that because

he saw the pillar of fire

turn in towards a sea-shore.

But as his refuge he chose Riga, which was a mistake.

And what history teaches us I find hard to understand.

I'm panicky in Germany: next to me,

in an elegant cafe, which surely at that time

was just the same, there sit

grey-locked Germans -

having returned,

I pick up the receiver

(and his Heidelberg student who shot him

because he was teaching them humanism),

I telephone - guess where? - to Heidelberg,

and with a beautiful German girl, the young fraulein Christiane -

dein goldenes Haar Margarete -

have a talk, her voice trembling with love,

in this age of the end of humanism,

and will it be only a chapter

or a volume, and was that old Jewish historian right

who was shot not for his race in the Riga woods?


Translated from Russian by Gerald Smith

(The Jerusalem Post Arts Supplement, 11.11.91)

See the Russian original at:


Time’s car’s fast approaching — soon
Body’s lease will be withdrawn,
And already we can see
Sandy-shored eternity.
That is why the nightingale
Sings its melody so well
In love’s gardens.
He is blessed
Who masters the accountancy
Of life, death, immortality —
Who watches migrant leaves go past
In all their mutability.


But still across the earth, what power
Lies in the striving to be free!
…Between its rigid banks the river
Slides, benumbed by its timidity.

The river has no choice, it must submit
To their unyielding vigilance:
The oceans, so the banks will tell it,
Are likewise subject to obedience.

Yet surely there must be a reason
Why, in defiance of all sense,
The river still has in its season
Whirlpools, waterfalls, cross-currents.

It’s not by chance, when times are stormy,
The river more and more expands –
Determined on its liberty,
In anger it beats down the banks.

Agitated by its total liberty,
the wave is swelling and advancing,
marching towards the shore in line ahead,
commanding what exists for you and me.

Living and dying teach us thus to raise
freedom to the height, and that is why,
tensing yet again my lips, I say to you
approaching the sea is always the first time.


The Afghani man explained: Home in our country
and in our language pakhto freedom's a word
that also means honour and life — and thus
we might say: "He's forgone his dignity,
and so his life, having been stripped of freedom."
My native land lies where every spring the jonquil's blossoming,
with its brief lovely life... There's no worse insult
for us to throw at any man but this:
"You're left without pakhto!" — and that will mean:
without will, life and honour — without tongue.
Yes, language too deserts a people when
their liberty has left them...
But already
from those peaks of the towering Hindu Kush
the free wind brings to me the shepherd's voice.


Seeing all the tricks and crookery
Of the boss-rooks in his rookery,

Johnny Rook took such a fit
Of laughter that his belly split.

His doctor said: "Don't laugh so much!" —
A wise old crow who, with deft touch,

Put the final stitches in —
"For a while don't even grin!"


There once was a pismire,
And he had his house
Among silvery boughs.
His friend the nightingale
Nested in the galingale
Down by the quagmire.
The small, velvet-coated
Blind mouldywarp's
Home was the dome
Of a skirling starling.
On both the friends he doted:
"I'll leave my closet,"
He said, "and I'll visit
Those two, and I'll hear
Them sing a motet
Both loud and clear,
With flats and sharps,
As a duet."


I had rubbed myself with a towel
And stood in the silence and looked
At the darkened garden
And the night firmament.
The heavens were all in black-blue,
Deep and luminous;
The night was partly cloudy.
Above a huge fir-tree
Falling as a shadow on the sky
Three stars quivered
And the moon brushed the clouds from its face.
I stood and marvelled
At fate's poignant fairy-tale,
And I felt: all was life,
Only life,
Only by life from life,
By the transparent green water,
Beside the very bench,
Near the dark windows of the house
Where they were already asleep.


The lapis lazuli is to be found
Among the Urals — it's of baser grade;
And in Afghanistan there also is
Lapis lazuli, the costliest sort,
And literally it's worth its weight in gold.
The Russian lapis lazuli is easily
Distinguished from the Badakhshan variety:
Discoloured it is — yes, quite a lot discoloured;
The Afghan kind is largely free from that —
In it five specks at most will pass muster
Per square centimetre...
So the wagons
From Badakhshan towards the neighbouring region —
Soviet Tadzhikistan — went trundling on.
It must be in this sort the Afghan people
Expressed their infinite gratitude
To Russia for her comradely assistance.


At opening of September it appears
there's twice as many leaves as there had been
in the last week of August: they increase
with every day and hour, and so pile up
upon one's path like red and yellow snowdrifts...
Over there was a passage through the greenery
not so long ago since where by the hand I led
a girl companion with a high clear forehead
(we had to stoop a little as we went
so as not to brush against the branches).
And now there are two bushes of some kind there,
lawn as well — with no concealment, nor
mystery, nor thrill, nor taking risks
where the way out is unpredictable.
Just like a gardener with a saw, life amputates
the branches of the years and opens up
the empty spaces where dogs frisk about,
and pigeons strut, and children play their games,
and where no trace remains of our past selves.


A soggy spongy mass that towel became
Which had been hung out all night to dry
From the window. A railway station may
With suddenness show up, as in a film.

And now among the layered-out clouds is light,
And higher up, behind their solid screen.
Already before you and me the train
Is growing heavy in its distant flight.

And we still by the coloured, black-and-white,
Wet, dry timetable of the eyes must live,
Greeting the sun there yet again above,
Seemingly, fields of ripened rye or wheat.


A single leaf hangs in the air
on a spider-thread; at the horizon
a vista of sky and earth is meeting

as we pick our narrow way across
an autumn field of just-sown wheat
and further on along a forest path

to where a reservoir opens.
This, it seems to us, becomes the river
flowing around Muscovite domes

where on a little porch our memory
lies down, as both the wretched poor
stride on cobbled roads and aristocrats

ride slick trotters into the age's storms.
The way there and the passage back
lie along black back stairs and front portals,

sentries cloaked in greenery. Coming close,
we see how clear the evening air is, and
how tremulously a single leaf hangs down.


A wide, snow-covered field, and icy hills
Surround it; on each of them a boy, and he
Makes his sledge ready for the perilous slide.
Far off behind the hill and forest someone
On a grown-up bed sleeps on, disturbed
With childhood dreams and all illuminated
By the cipher of the moon. Trees stand
In white; it hurts, and it cannot be quietened.
And now a girl sporting a red head-dress
And a brilliant blue cloak, but gloveless,
With her bare hands takes from between birch-branches
Indistinct glimmerings of the snow.


The steps of birdsong we ascend
toward death reflect the rising
sun's foreign rays and at this
season eyes ever more often seek
a living cluster on the upper tiers
full of its own harmony among
bare branches and emergent buds,
leaves that tear themselves off
and turn green.


The teachers' staff room opened up
more or less on the river Thames;
in the Great Hall at close-packed desks
the upper sixth sat their exams.

There I was standing at a table,
watching the meadow and the bank;
impudently young, Spring entered
and made me gasp like someone drunk.

Breathtaking, so much beauty was;
she went on and on calling
for me to follow the stream and go
to a place with no returning.


*      *      *
Not death inside the frozen slave camp
Nor execution in a blood-drenched cellar,
Not flash of axe or shattered lamp,
The poplar's cry, earth drained of colour:
Over the bitter land angry winds arise,
The storm has come to wash away the dross,
Slaking thirst, cleansing eyes
And brightening every face.

*      *      *

Neither death nor the sea but the hoarse
And caressing voice of the flute
Moving mankind to confute
The wound at the century's source;

So summer, her arms filled with corn,
Would follow the spring, and the year
Would banish suspicion and fear,
With its seasons properly worn.

As fresh as the colour and scent
Of the lilac, the sound of the flute
Makes audible all that was mute;
From earth's confines it makes its ascent

To the great arching firmament's height:
So flautist, play on and enhance
Our life with the grace of the dance,
Of terrestrial music and light.


Bringing closer, pushing further
sky's and earth's perimeter
where the birds are disappearing,
life once more is promising

the very childhood smell of jasmine,
lilac, and the first, as on
Creation's opening day, ecstatic
intimation of the sea.




(From "Romeo and Juliet")
Far away or near,
Above each hill,
With a celestial eye
Following us still —

The cumulus gazes,
The high cirrus glances,
See the poison vial,
Note the galloping horses,

Behold the hooves
That seem to skim the ground,
And how with a film
Verona's streets are pearled,

How dewdrops without leave
Descend on balconies
And garden-plots, and
Swift luminous fireflies

Dance over burial vaults,
And how, beyond the brink
Of the river's course
The evening sun has sunk

In its tranquillity,
And halfway onward there
Across the arching sky
Distance has grown obscure...


Is there
a print
left by the toes
upon the umbered surface
of the stone
on which the farmer's daughter
stepped in the springtime
to reach
the top of the fence
between the cornfield
and the water-meadow —
I would like to have inquired
whether somewhere
there does not remain
the trace
of her delicate foot,
if the memory lingers
of her way of walking
or of her running,
or of her body's resting
in the grass by the waterside?
She had drowned, they told me,
last autumn, swimming by night in the cold river.


Strange then
you will suddenly hear
in cities
clear footfalls of May
and open
the window to blue:
it is then
in this autumn undressing
that spring steps again,
that borders
emerge in a mist
as words, and bridges —
a girl's slender waist,
and features —
the sounds of a fugue.




In memory of Nina Bein
I make my way to the empty house:
Once, in there, children laughed and cried.
So I face the past: the place
Where the living died.

She stands there again at the window
High, on that upper floor,
Telling the children, “Now don’t you go
Too far off! – as so often before –

And I’m stopped: the beat
Of a footfall would be too rude,
They’d be too light, these feet
For such heavy solitude.


Keep quiet, grassblades, do not bait me
upon the troubled waking
in the spring: the cigarette, the pill, the breathless running
on morning dew and in the anxious emptiness a search for thoughts;
and on a summer noon
when walking round
the water where there was
a willow by the wall
while struggling to feel
the foliage, and late at night, within
the shadow of the trees,
throughout the rising
of an enormous moon,
before the house
where all were sleeping - do not hound
with over-rigorous justice,
leave me,
release, I paid my debt in full, and now
when I am waiting in the sun,
and bees are humming, and a ball
is lying in the bushes, and my fingers
smell of mint, do not
address me, nor besiege, nor threaten disintegration.


Someone approached me from the plain.
I cried out, taken unawares.
Tin hoarfrost sparkled in my hands
And resurrected childhood fears.
Before us loomed a road. The smell
Of farm shit blew forth to disperse.
Before me passed two trickling wisps
Of dust upon its destined course
And then a hayrack. All at once
I saw as if upon a stage
The indefatigable years
Perform their steady, steady siege.


   And Someone Seems to be Dreaming  
           And someone seems to be dreaming
         that a ship sails by,
         a train departs, and someone
         gazes at the sky.

           Tell us how they saw you
         off on your chosen way,
         watching with eyes wide open
         by railway track or quay.

           As you grew small and smaller,
         they stood with waving hands,
         singing of distant meetings
         in future riverlands.

           Whoever you may be, stranger,
         passing through life, pass on;
         at the sky beyond the mirror
         never gaze too long,

           lest you catch your breath so sharply  
           when that high depth appears
         that there will not be lives enough
        or deaths enough for tears.


  Where our shadows stir in moonlight 
that once seemed fixed in time and now is Time itself;
window panes are shaking, eager to let in the snow
as if wanting a visit, though the air in the house
is bad for snow, while outside,
it’s light and lofty as in dream lodgings.
So the hour will strike, and the time
will come for us to ask forgiveness
of those two passers-by, gliding so easily
along the frontier of time and consciousness
through snow-moon leaves 
when we recognize their faces.